The National Park Service is set to decide this week whether or not to extend a lease for Kenny Lunny's Drake's Bay Oyster Farm. Environmentalists want the oyster company removed from the estuary. Joe Rosato Jr. reports.
Kevin Lunny greeted a worker with a hearty "buenos dias" as he wandered toward a ragged conveyor belt churning out a steady flow of raw oysters. "Buenos dias," he said again to a group of women who sat shucking oysters at the edge of the Drake's Estero in Point Reyes.
Lunny's disposition seemed rather sunny for a man who was about to come out on either side of a vicious seven-year battle to save his business -- Drake's Bay Oyster Farm. "We just want to be farmers," said Lunny, who grew up nearby in West Marin.
"We had no idea we were going to find ourselves in this kind of battle, that's actually turned into a national debate." The debate has raged now for seven years, ever since the National Park Service told Lunny it wouldn't renew the lease on the century old oyster farm.
Since then, he and environmentalists have squared-off in a vicious debate over science that's split the otherwise tranquil Point Reyes community.
"This has been very divisive locally," said Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which wants the oyster company removed from the estuary. The roots of the brouhaha were planted in 1976, when Congress passed legislation designating Drakes Bay as the first marine wilderness area on the West Coast.
The oyster farm was granted a 40-year lease to remain. But that lease expires on November 30. Lunny, a West Marin cattle rancher, bought the oyster farm from his neighbors who were retiring in 2004.
Although he said he knew of the lease's pending expiration, he thought the National Park Service would extend it.
A year later, the Park Service told him it had no plans to let him stay. "We've always expected and hoped that would be honored by the Park Service and renew this use," Lunny said.
Lunny and his supporters hurled themselves head-first into a battle to save his farm, attempting to counter opponents who said the oyster operation disrupted the estuary's wildlife.
"There are a number of adverse environmental impacts from this commercial operation," said Trainer. "Including disturbance to harbor seals, disturbance to birds and other wildlife that use the area." But Lunny denied his operation disturbs the estuary.
In fact, he said scientific studies have shown oysters may actually improve the health of the water. "It's a beautiful, bio-diverse estuary today after a hundred years of oyster production," Lunny said, gesturing toward the bay.
"So there really isn't a problem." The decision of whether there's a problem or not, is now in the hands of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
In 2009, oyster farm supporter Sen. Dianne Feinstein convinced Congress to pass legislation, tasking the interior secretary with the final word on whether to extend the company's lease. Salazar toured the farm the day before Thanksgiving and promised to reveal his decision before the November 30th deadline.
Environmentalists say whatever Salazar decides, it will reverberate across the nation's parks.
"This decision is significantly important for marine conservation nationally," said Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's significantly important for the National Parks across the system." Lunny insists his operation has been a good steward of the estuary.
He said the farm produces five million oysters a year, 40 percent of California's oyster production, with minimal impact to the surroundings.
With the decision on his future coming anytime in the next few days, Lunny paced briskly past a massive pile of empty oyster shells, toward a small barge where workers were hauling in the day's oyster harvest. Until he learns otherwise, there was still a lot of work to do.